Music to cry to: songs that help us through heartbreak

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Heartbreak always sucks. It’s just one of the universal truths. Even if you’ve found yourself falling out of love; even if you know ending a relationship is for the best; even if a relationship ended on good terms and you agreed to be friends, the pain of a heartbreak is unfortunately something that is sadly inescapable.

This pain doesn’t just manifest mentally but often physically, too. However, unlike a regular ache or pain, these headaches and chest pains cannot be remedied by painkillers since as long as you’re hurting mentally that pain will be sure to manifest itself physically. But luckily, while there isn’t a cure for this hurt, there is some audible medicine that can help ease it: music.

This is a medicine that does not only numb the pain of heartache, but that can save people from succumbing to it. Furthermore, no person ever takes the same dose or type of musical medicine as, despite its universality, music is a medicine as unique as its patient’s pain. In light of this, I decided to ask people* what albums (or songs) were the most important and integral to them overcoming heartache to explore the different and personal ways music helps us heal after heartbreak.

Firstly, I decided to reflect on my own experience with how music has helped me through heartbreak since it’s been so vital to my own healing process and, after all, I couldn’t expect people to bare their own souls unless I did so first.

Emma – Be the Cowboy // Mitski

Mitski album cover for 'Be The Cowboy'

I never expected that breaking up would be easy, but when I broke up with my first long-term boyfriend this spring, nothing prepared me for just how agonising it would be. Even though I was constantly surrounding myself with friends to distract myself from the pain I felt and the thoughts of regret that would creep into my head and fester if I was left to think for even a minute, there were, inevitably, times where I unfortunately had to be alone with my thoughts. It was in these moments where I truly found how comforting music can be as in my isolation and boredom, I discovered a new album: Mitski’s Be the Cowboy.

Upon this discovery, I found that I suddenly didn’t feel so alone in my loneliness as I heard the multifaceted feelings of loneliness and detachment expressed so beautifully and intricately in a way I’d never heard before. Even the ugliest parts of grief such as desperation, longing, insecurity and the overwhelming sense of melancholy that seems to taint every moment were captured so perfectly for me. This sense of relatability was cathartic and relieving. It allowed me to truly feel, express and thus process the complicated and confusing emotions I felt so strongly. When I listened to this album, I almost felt like I could bear to be alone.

Hearing the song ‘Nobody’ was particularly pivotal for me. My friends might argue that my obsession with this song merely facilitated my wallowing, but unfortunately wallowing is just part of my grieving process and being able to wail “nobody” twenty-eight times in three different keys was the perfect, most comforting way for me to do that. Especially in the recent aftermath of the breakup where I was incapable of being alone for a few hours, yet felt so incredibly lonely all the time, ‘Nobody’ (and the entirely of Be the Cowboy) was there to help me understand and validate how I felt.

I genuinely don’t think I could’ve gotten through the breakup with any semblance of sanity if it weren’t for Be the Cowboy. The sadness and nostalgia of ‘Two Slow Dancers’, the loneliness of ‘Nobody’, the desperation of ‘Why Didn’t You Stop Me?’ and the desire and hopelessness of ‘Washing Machine Heart’ were especially comforting to me at the time as I felt to deeply connected to all of the confusing and complicated sentiments they expressed.

On a whole, Be the Cowboy made me feel okay with being a confused and complicated mess and still gives me that comfort to this day. While I remember vividly how I felt when I first listened to the album when I (frequently) revisit it, it’s taken on a new meaning to me as a reminder of how far I’ve come- and how far I’ve still got to go.’

Anthony – Rumours // Fleetwood Mac

Fleetwood Mac album cover for 'Rumours'

‘I never really listened to music before, say, autumn last year. And if I did it never really affected me too much, emotionally. Music plays a much more important role in my life these days. The album is Rumours. By Fleetwood Mac. Hell, anything by them. It’s not so much that listening to this album helped me get over my lingering feelings, more so that stopping listening to this album song by song, skipping over it in playlists and slowly phasing it out of my life helped. You see, I very much associated these songs with the person I was trying to forget but I wanted, ironically, to keep them around.

There weren’t any specifically tough times really, not that I remember, and gradually I just forgot the songs. My process of listening to the album was just a constant descent from the high of having feelings for someone to returning to normality.

Listening to Rumours helped a bit, but I think the feelings naturally dispersed with time. And space. Lots of space. But the less I thought about it the quicker it went. These songs reminded me of what I liked about her and listening to them let me go to a place where I realised I was happy that I was forgetting about that. Getting them out of my life was a tie I had to cut between dreams and reality.

I don’t really listen to them all that often anymore, though. Apart from “The Chain” cause it fuckin slaps- couldn’t quite give that one up. No, for an album that’s recognised for its love and hate, I don’t really associate it with those emotions. It’s just some songs to dance to that reminded me of a person. Anyways, Santana did it better. It’s different now, though. Maybe I’ll give it another go.’

Charlie – Spotify’s Sad Songs playlist

After my breakup I didn’t listen to an album or specific songs, more like a type of music: slow sad songs meant to make you feel something (John Legend’s ‘All of You’ was one I’d listen to A LOT). At the time I think I was feeling so many different emotions about the situation and listening to really sad music just let me wallow in the feelings I was having. To be honest, these songs probably made me even more sad… but for some reason that just made me listen more.

Truthfully, I guess I just listened to sad music to make myself feel even more sad and feel sorry for myself. Especially during the first two weeks of the breakup: I would listen to the same Sad Songs playlist created by Spotify, mainly because I couldn’t be bothered to make my own playlist but also because I knew they were guaranteed to be very depressing. I think listening to sad music when you’re already very upset pushes you into a state where you get to the point you look at yourself and think “okay I need to get my act together now”.

This music was pretty significant in allowing me to get over the breakup. Many of the songs I would listen to were about love or breakups or heartbreak in general so I would relate a lot to them and even though a lot of the time they were melancholy songs, the lyrics would remind and reassure me that things would get better eventually.

It’s a bit of a bad habit of mine to listen to sad music to make myself even more sad and wallow in it. However, what I will say is that this playlist did make me feel worse and which then pushed me to feel better so I guess, in that way, it showed me how sad music can be both detrimental and beneficial during breakups. It’s a process, and one that I’ve come to appreciate a lot when I’m in a state of mind like that. Although it reminds me of a pretty painful time in my life, I do appreciate that playlist a lot now because it helped me overcome everything I went through.

Gemma- Ctrl // SZA

At the time of my breakup, I’d never heard lyrics that I could relate to so deeply. SZA was writing so candidly about feelings of anxiety and feeling inadequate, especially in relationships. It was really interesting because I hadn’t heard a lot of female artists at the time that were so open and vulnerable about these types of things in their songs. SZA really opened to door for me to discover a lot more female lyricists who write in a similar way (Mitski in particular). I think I’d only ever heard women write songs about empowerment, love or heartbreak which are great themes but I don’t think I was listening to a lot of women in music, because I tend to listen to more sort of rock or indie which is definitely a male dominated space.

SZA’s music found me at a very important and strange part of my life. I was 17 going on 18 and I was just sort of coming into my own as a person and really trying to find an identity and be comfortable in it. It was also a time when I was going through a lot romantically: there were a lot of happy times but also a lot of rejection and heartbreak that really shaped me as a person. When I felt alone and uncertain about everything, Ctrl was there to help me cope. It has songs that resonated with almost everything I was feeling and when I felt like I was lost and like I wasn’t enough, it reminded me of who I was.

In the midst of dealing with heartbreak, Ctrl was very comforting since SZA’s lyrics bled raw emotion. She puts the messiest emotions on full display (spite, anger, desperation) and that was really cathartic for me- to this day it still is. It was a relief to discover through her music\ that it was okay to feel these intense emotions and be unapologetic about it (in songs like ‘Drew Barrymore’ and ‘Supermodel’), but to still mature and be introspective after the storm (’20 Something’ – the closing track of the album). Even for the moments where I felt stronger and happier, there were empowering tracks to balance out the despair like ‘Doves in the Wind’ and ‘Broken Clocks’.

This album helped me to process my emotions in my own time as it echoed those complicated feelings back to me again and again until, eventually, they just became faint whispers. It slowly but surely helped me put the pieces back together and now I listen to it and feel uplifted because I still remember just how important it was in times of heartbreak.

Nowadays, I feel weirdly nostalgic when I hear it, because it doesn’t just remind me of breaking up and feeling sad, it reminds me of an overall simpler time, a time when I was really starting to grow up and things were exciting. It represents an overall change in my life from leaving high school to entering the ‘real’ world, but I was still able to have fun and have a lot of great experiences with my friends.

TLDR: I love the album so much that I got the title tattooed on my side.

Some names in this article have been changed and submissions have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Words by Emma Reilly

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